Book review, Joel Simon, We Want to Negotiate: The Secret World of Kidnapping, Hostages and Ransom


Book review
Joel Simon
We Want to Negotiate: The Secret World of Kidnapping, Hostages and Ransom
Nonfiction, paperback, 189 pages, released January 2019, ISBN 9780999745427
Published by Columbia Global Reports, New York City

Author Joel Simon is the director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which was founded in 1981 and has its main office in New York.

Some governments are willing to pay ransom or make other concessions to kidnappers and terrorists. Some governments are unwilling to pay or meet demands. Those who hold both positions explain that their objective is to save the maximum number of lives, but the disagreement is about which policy will achieve that maximal saving of lives.

Sometimes what we perceive to be common sense turns out to be untrue. Common sense is that a strict policy of making no concessions with kidnappers and terrorists will make their actions less profitable and therefore less frequent, while paying ransoms or giving in to other demands will add incentives for the commission of similar crimes in the future. Not so, according to research conducted by the New America organization. They do find, as expected, that refusal to pay a demanded ransom is positively correlated with abducted individuals being murdered, however, they find no correlation between the payment of ransom and a future increase in the number of abductions. This finding is contrary to the claims of U.S. and British governments

In this analysis, kidnappings seem to be the most commonly-discussed types of acts of terror, although they are not the only type that occur. Some countries that have paid ransom to kidnappers are Austria, France, Germany, Spain, and Switzerland -- a pattern that has led some to call this "the European policy." Some countries that almost always refuse to pay ransom to kidnappers are Britain, Japan, and the United States. Statistics show that kidnap victims from the first group of countries are more likely to be freed, and victims from the second group of countries are more likely to be murdered. But the next next question is whether a policy of paying ransom will tend to make kidnapping a profitable enterprise, and thereby cause the crime to occur more frequently. The latter opinion does not seem to be supported by statistical analysis.

Author Joel Simon makes the passionate demand that, if a society adopts what he, as well as the New America organization, call a "no-concessions policy", which may cost some people their lives, while expected to save lives, it is important that we ascertain whether the policy is truly effective. The statistical database does not support the effectiveness of such a strict policy. Therefore, what must be avoided is an inflexible policy, so that the option to respond to particular situations remains available.

Some abductions are have ideological causes. What can cause an abduction that is not simply a profit-motivated crime? The author explains:

"Kidnappings can be used to achieve a variety of objectives. They can generate revenue through ransom; they can be used to extract political concessions; or they can be used to sow terror and fear. Kidnapping thrives in lawless places in the midst of conflict. When motive and opportunity come into alignment, kidnapping surges. This is precisely because it is such an effective tactic."

The U.S. policy of non-negotiation has its major roots in the response to an event in 1973. At that time, the Palestinian group Black September attacked the Saudi embassy in Sudan during a reception attended by diplomats of several countries. U.S. ambassador George Curtis Moore was assassinated. The assailants took a Belgian diplomat and two American diplomats as hostages. The perpetrators demanded the release of Sirhan Sirhan, the convicted killer of U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy. President Richard M. Nixon told the American people, "As far as the United States as a government giving in to blackmail demands, we cannot do so, and we will not do so." Simon believes that this was a major event in solidifying the American policy which remains in place today.

Additional problems are posed, not by terrorist gangs, but also by countries that continue to jail people unnecessarily, on flimsy charges or no charges. As of 2015, the CPJ counts, 199 journalists were in jail worldwide. In such cases, publicity is sometimes a method to make the release of the prisoners more probable. The first tangible success of the CPJ was in 1982 when a request by CBS news anchor and CPJ member Walter Cronkite was helpful in freeing three British journalists who were jailed in Argentina. The three journalists, certainly not spies nor disruptors of any kind, had merely been in the country to cover the 74-day military conflict between Britain and Argentina over control of the Falkland Islands.

The book cites a few examples of events which have taken place during the period of the Committee's existence and humanitarian involvement:

"In late 2002, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped in Karachi, Pakistan, by Al Qaeda. In 2003, Los Angeles Times photographer Scott Dalton, along with a British colleague Ruth Morris, was kidnapped in Colombia by FARC guerrillas. In 2006, Jill Carroll, a reporter working for the Christian Science Monitor, was kidnapped in Iraq. In 2008, Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout and her Australian colleague Nigel Brennan were kidnapped in Somalia. That same year, New York Times reporter David Rohde and his two Afghan colleagues disappeared while reporting in Afghanistan."

The first story described in some detail in the book is an example of a failure of a negotiation effort. In 2012 freelance journalist James Foley, covering the civil war in Syria, was described as missing. In 2014 he became the first American to be killed by ISIL. The murder by beheading was purely vindictive, described by the killers as an answer to the U.S. air strikes in Iraq. Diana and John Foley, the parents of Jim Foley, had been preparing to begin a fundraiser to offer ISIL ransom money to free their son, when they learned that their son was already dead.

The author describes what happened next:

"John and Diane, and all of the Foley family, showed tremendous strength and fortitude following Jim's death. They spoke at the CPJ gala dinner in November 2014, during which we remembered Jim. But colleagues began telling me that in private Diane was quite critical of CPJ's role. So I asked about her concerns. She told me that CPJ did not do enough for Jim, and that she was disappointed. I conceded that we could have done more, but also explained why we were constrained. At the time CPJ had a policy of discouraging the payment of ransom - especially by governments - because we believed that paying ransom could lead to additional kidnappings, increasing the risk for all journalists. I also had personal concerns about the legal risks to me and to the organization if we were directly involved in any fundraising effort, since the money raised would go to a terrorist group. Prompted by Diane, we began a review process. We asked a lawyer who had volunteered her time to assist CPJ in researching the rationale for the U.S. no concessions policy, which affirms that the U.S. does not 'negotiate with terrorists.' But this was only the beginning of what has become for me a much more sweeping and comprehensive undertaking. Different countries take different approaches to the kidnapping of their nationals. Some take a hard line, and others are willing to talk. I wanted to understand not only which approach was more effective, but also the moral and political consequences of providing funding to a terrorist organization. And I wanted to look not only at the issue of ransom, but also the structures for analyzing and responding to intelligence and providing ongoing support for hostage families."

Mr. Simon is sensitive to some dilemmas imposed by U.S. law. Before ISIL became impatient with the possibility of receiving a ransom payment, and therefore murdered Jim Foley, ISIL had sent an email to Foley's parents, in which the group said "We want to negotiate." (This is the source of the book title.) Having received that email, Foley's parents were prepared to reply directly to ISIL, and also to pay the group a ransom, both acts which would have been illegal under U.S. federal law, the several amendments to the U.S. Code known collectively as "the Patriot Act." If the CPJ had agreed to help Foley's parents raise the ransom money, the CPJ would likewise be in violation of federal law. At the same time, the agencies of the U.S. government, then under the Obama administration, were unwilling to give John and Diane Foley any form of assistance in the possible rescue of their son, other than, perhaps, the gathering of intelligence. Add this fiasco to the list of U.S. policies which need to be reviewed and reformed.

After their son was killed, the Foleys lobbied the Obama administration to reform the no-concessions policy. The administration refused to consider the suggestion.

The next narrative in the book is the case of journalist, Florence Aubenas of France, originally from Belgium, and her colleague Hussein Hanoun al-Saadi of Iraq. The two were kidnapped in Iraq in January of 2005, by a group that announced, "We are Mujahidin combating the Americans in Iraq." The two were released in June of the same year, after the French government reportedly paid a ransom to the captors.

Halfway through the period of captivity, the author reports, the kidnappers released a video of Abuenas "begging for her life", to use Simon's phrase. In the video, Abuenas is heard pleading with French member of parliament Didier Julia for help, "Mr. Julia, help me, It's urgent." The author interprets the mention of Mr. Julia in the video as an indication that the abductors wanted to open a negotiation channel. Julia took unauthorized trips to negotiate for the release of the kidnap victims, but the dominant Conservative party in France, holding the power to enact law, instructed him not to undertake such unauthorized missions. The French intelligence agancy told Julia to do nothing in this regard.

Date of publication: January 22, 2019

The book is available in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook editions.

Joel Simon was previously the author, in 2014, of the book The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom. He has also written for several newspapers and magazines.

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